Saturday 22 October 2016

Three dead as school group caught in avalanche

Henry Samuel and Alexandra Williams

Published 14/01/2016 | 02:30

A student lights a candle outside the Lycee Saint-Exupery school in Lyon, France. Photo: AFP/Getty
A student lights a candle outside the Lycee Saint-Exupery school in Lyon, France. Photo: AFP/Getty
Rescue teams search the avalanche site. Photo: AFP/Getty

Two schoolchildren and an adult skier were killed last night when an avalanche swept down a mountainside on a closed black ski run and engulfed a school party at a popular resort in the French Alps.

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The teacher with the school party was in a serious but not life-threatening condition with "multiple injuries" after being air-lifted to Grenoble University Hospital 40 miles away.

The dead were a 16-year-old girl and a boy. The other victim was a Ukrainian man who had not been named last night. He was said not to be connected to the school.

Two other children were also being treated in hospital. They had been rescued from deep snow on the Bellecombe run at the Les Deux Alpes resort after the avalanche struck just before 4pm.

Scores of rescue workers rushed to the scene of the avalanche, which followed heavy snow finally arriving in Alpine resorts. Many runs have opened late because there has not been enough snow. Investigations have been opened into why the party was on a slope that had been closed since the beginning of the season.

"The avalanche risk was three on a scale of five. This ski run hadn't been opened this season because it hadn't snowed enough. It was not skiable," said Dominique Letang, head of France's national agency of snow and avalanche studies, Anena.

Jean-Paul Bonnetain, the prefect of L'Isere, said: "The teacher took the initiative to take the group on to the closed piste. An inquiry is under way."

There were fears that another five pupils might have been buried, but all were eventually rescued and accounted for. Another pupil was carried away by the avalanche but managed to walk away unscathed, according to reports.

The children were part of a group of 19 pupils and three adult staff from the Lycee Saint-Exupery school in Lyon undertaking a week's ski course.

Rescue workers said that while all the school party had been accounted for, the search was continuing for any other victims still trapped.

Specialist high mountain police equipped with rescue dogs, a helicopter and thermal imaging cameras searched the debris with 30 rescuers from the ski station and local guides.

The mayor of the local town of Venosc, Pierre Balme, told reporters that the run, rated black, or the most difficult level on the standard skiing assessment system, was closed at the time. The avalanche risk across much of the region had been put at level four, or "very high" after recent snowfalls following a warm spell.

At the resort itself, the alert was at level three. Snowfall had been lighter, but meteorologists say there had been strong winds in the area which would have given rise to drifting.

Mr Letang said: "This is an avalanche that was 20m wide and 300m long over a 100m drop in altitude. This is a typical case of a 'wind slab', in other words a slab of snow formed by very strong wind over the past few days. The fresh snow didn't stick enough."

He added: "What is concerning is the number of people involved because we keep repeating that you must pass on a slope where there is an unstable mantle of snow. It makes me angry."

France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, expressed "great sadness". He said: "All our thoughts are with the victims and those who are fighting for their lives." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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